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World Travels



In 1898, during the twilight of the Golden Age of Sail, Charles Macdonald went away to sea. Macdonald had been born in 1874, and Nova Scotia's own shipbuilding and shipping industries had peaked ten years earlier. By 1898, the days when Nova Scotia had boasted the world's fourth-largest merchant fleet had passed by. Steamships were driving wooden barques, barquentines, schooners, and even full-rigged ships, from the seas. Even Macdonald wondered "how this progressive nineteenth century people could use a conveyance as slow and uncertain as a sailing ship." Nevertheless, Macdonald registered with the 1000-ton barque "Francis S. Hampshire," as a ship's carpenter. The Hampshire, crewed by Norwegians, Germans, and Cockneys, sailed out of New York bound for Santos, Brazil. Its lofty masts came within inches of grazing the arch of the Brooklyn Bridge, an icon of modernity, as the barque passed underneath.

Macdonald found himself in an enviable position as a ship's carpenter. He did not have to take part in the normal run of duties that absorbed the rest of the crew, pursuing his own projects, at his own pace, in his own shop. Luckily for us, Charlie turned much of his free time over to sketching. Several sketchbooks survive to document his travels. Taken collectively, Charlie's sketches from his four years at sea give us something like a portrait of the fin-de-siecle world.

The Hampshire's voyage took months. Macdonald read omnivorously, learned to play the mandolin, and filled a sketchbook. Whales, sea-birds, squalls, other ships, and his ports of call, all captured Macdonald's interest. Years later, the sea still fascinated him - even the storms. "Strange to say, there is great beauty in these storms and squalls. They are colourful - blues and greens in particular - when they break. The white which curls up over [the waves] makes such vivid contrast, and shows a wonderful variety of shades of color," he told an interviewer in the 1960s.

After spotting dolphins and albatrosses at sea, Santos was something of a disappointment for Charlie - "too modernized to be much attractive." Nevertheless, the colonial Portuguese buildings of Santos may have influenced Charlie to build Mediterranean-style buildings later in life. From Brazil, the Hampshire sailed to Bermuda where Charlie changed ships. In changing ships, he very nearly changed centuries too. His new vessel, the SS Buffon, was not a sailing ship but a tramp steamer. The Buffon tooled around the Caribbean and then made a crossing to England where Macdonald took a place on the gleaming new 2 500-ton steamship, SS Broadgarth.

The busy Broadgarth took Charlie across the world, leaving Tynemouth for Murmansk, St. Petersburg, the Dardanelles, Odessa, Holland, Nantes, Gibraltar, Malta, Pompeii, Constantinople, the Suez Canal, Aden, and as far as India, in 1902. Macdonald wrote home faithfully and took an interest in prosaic matters like his brother's new house in Bridgewater, NS, and the welfare of the family pigs; but travel was in his blood. Charlie explained that "foreign travel is like smoking - you get sick of at first and grow to like it at last when you don't want to give it up."

The Indian subcontinent, then the crown jewel of the British Empire, made a great impression on Charlie. The "warm and dusty colours" of the buildings and people captivated him. He was mesmerized when he sighted a tiger skulking across a secluded beach at dusk. On the other hand, he was saddened by "the terrible poverty of that part of the world, the crowds on the streets and people living and dying in the streets too".

After months in India, the Broadgarth returned to Europe with a load of peanuts for France. Macdonald had finally had enough foreign travel. After spending a glorious summer frequenting the art galleries and libraries of London, the greatest city of the North Atlantic world, he returned home to Steam Mill.


It is likely that, before sailing, he purchased a "Kodak" with which he took pictures along the way and left us an album featuring snaps of his touring around Havana on his time off. History reminds us that 1898 was the year the USS Maine exploded in Havana Harbour, setting off the Spanish American War and setting the scene for Fidel Castro's revolution some fifty years later.


A video slideshow of sketches by a young Charles Macdonald documenting  his first trip to sea. As the ship's carpenter, he often had time to draw and it didn't hurt that the ship's captain took a fancy to his work.

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